Editor’s note: This week, we continue our 5-part series of excerpts from Peter Calthorpe’s book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.” This is installment number four. Thanks to Island Press, a few lucky Streetsblog readers will be selected to receive a free copy of the book. To enter the contest, fill out this form.
I was part of the passive solar architectural movement in the 1970s. Its core idea was to provide energy for buildings in the most direct, elegant way. We had disdain for complicated “active solar” systems, with their complex engineering, maintenance, and costs. The passive way was first to reduce the demands by building tight, well insulated structures, flooded with natural light, and then to let the sun’s radiation or the cool night air work with the buildings’ form to provide thermal comfort. The same approach needs to be taken in relation to the climate change challenge: we need to find the simple, elegant solutions that are based on conservation before we introduce complex technology, even if it is green.
We need to focus, ironically, on ends, not means. For example, in passive solar buildings, focusing on the end goal (thermal comfort) rather than the means (heating air) changed the design approach dramatically. It turns out that human comfort has more to do with surrounding surface temperatures than with air temperature in a building, so massive walls that absorb and store the sun’s gentle heat also provide a more comfortable environment without all the hot air. Or, if lighting is the goal, electricity and bulbs are just one potential means; a building that welcomes daylight is the simple, elegant solution—even better than a complex system of wind farms generating green electrons for efficient fixtures. Likewise, the goal of transportation is access, not movement or mobility per se; movement is a means, not the end. So, bringing destinations closer together is a simpler, more elegant solution than assembling a new fleet of electric cars and the acres of solar collectors needed to power them. Call it “passive urbanism.”
Once demands are reduced by passive urbanism, the next step is to add technology. Green urbanism is what you get when you combine the best of traditional urbanism with renewable energy sources, advanced conservation techniques, new green technologies, and integrated services and utilities. All the inherent benefits of urbanism can be amplified by a new generation of ecological design, smart grids, climate-responsive buildings, low-carbon or electric cars, and next generation transit systems.